TRAVERS STAKES | PURSE: $1, 000,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS | GRADE 1 | 1 1/4-MILES
Willis Horton's Will Take Charge finally got the big one, and did so at the expense of the country's top 3-year-olds when he nosed out Moreno to win the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 24.
The blaze-faced chestnut, a son of Unbridled's Song out of multiple grade I winner Take Charge Lady, finished ahead of Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who was third, while Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes winner Palace Malice ran fourth.
William Hill Haskell Invitational winner Verrazano, favored at 8-5, weakened after stalking the pace and wound up seventh in the field of nine.
It was the second major upset in a 3-year-old classic this year for 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who took the Preakness Stakes with Oxbow at odds of 15-1. Lukas also won the Travers with Thunder Gulch in 1995 and with Corporate Report in 1991.
"It feels pretty good," Lukas remarked. "They were reminding me it's been a long time between drinks, but when they come like this, they come double."
With jockey Luis Saez in the irons for the first time, Will Take Charge was sent off at 9-1 after a runner-up finish one length behind Palace Malice in the July 27 Jim Dandy. Winner of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park earlier in the season, when he finished ahead of Oxbow, the big colt competed in all three Triple Crown races but never hit the board.
"I changed up a few things," Lukas said. "I took a chance on an up-and-coming rider. I thought my horse trained well, but these things are so tough. At the three-eighths pole, I thought we'll get a piece of it, but I didn't know if we'd get up. He's a little over 17 hands and just starting to find himself. This is a horse who's going to get better. He's getting his act together."
It was the first grade I win for Saez, a 21-year-old Panama native who is enjoying a banner year after making the move to the New York circuit from Florida back in April. Earlier in the season Saez attracted attention with a five-win day May 31 at Belmont Park. The rider, who launched his North American career in 2009, also counts the Peter Pan Stakes on Freedom Child, the Smile Sprint Handicap with Bahamian Squall, and the Sheepshead Bay aboard Tannery among his nine graded stakes scores in 2013. He had ridden just 12 other horses for Lukas; this was the duo's first win.
"I want to say thanks to God, Lukas, and everyone who's coming here to see these champions," remarked Saez. "This horse was training good. Last time, when he finished second, I saw the replays and I knew how to ride him. I tried to ride him like he runs."
Southern Equine Stables' Moreno delivered the race of his life in the Travers at 31-1, striking the lead at the break under Jose Ortiz to gallop through an easy quarter in :24.40 and a half in :48.88. The Dwyer Stakes winner turned back Orb's inside challenge at the head of the lane after three-quarters in 1:13.43 and a mile in 1:37.47, nearly pulling off a wire-to-wire victory before Will Take Charge found his best stride late.
"Brutal, huh? Last jump," trainer Eric Guillot said. "He couldn't have done any better -- stay in the three-path, stay off the rail, make them come to you, don't let them go inside you, don't let them pinch you on the rail. The kid rode him just like I told him. He knows the horse and he rode him perfect; we got beat. He said the horse kind of waited on them that last part. What are you going to do?
"Who wouldn't have wanted to win on this day, on this stage? Like I say, you got to pay the piper for the stuff I talk, right? But I backed it up pretty damn good running second at 31-1 in the Travers, right? You can look at it both ways."
Final time for the 1 ¼-mile event was 2:02.68 on a fast track. The winner paid $21.20, $8.60, and $5.20, while Moreno returned $25.40 and $9.80, and Orb bringing $4.30. Behind Palace Malice came Romansh, War Dancer, Verrazano, Golden Soul, and Transparent.
Bred in Kentucky by Eaton, Will Take Charge is a $425,000 graduate of the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, in which he was consigned by Hill 'n' Dale. He improved his record to four wins and two seconds from 11 starts while pushing his earnings over the million mark to $1,265,371.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said Orb's rest at Fair Hill Training Center from the June 8 Belmont until his Travers bid helped get the Malibu Moon colt ready for the continuation of his 3-year-old campaign.
"He ran a good race," McGaughey said. "You can't cry over spilled milk. We got him back on the right track, and now we'll point for something else."
Substitute rider Jose Lezcano, who picked up the mount on Orb after regular rider Joel Rosario fractured his foot in an Aug. 23 fall at Saratoga, said Orb responded well in his first race back off the brief freshener.
"I got a very good trip," said Lezcano. "I got the position I wanted. The break was good, and he gave me his race. At the quarter pole, he accelerated, but the other horses kept going, too."
On the other hand, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez reported Verrazano turned in a lackluster run in spite of a good tracking spot third early on.
"I was very happy where I was," Velazquez said. "By the half-mile pole, he was off the bridle and just went through the motions. He really didn't put in much effort."
Leading Saratoga trainer Todd Pletcher, who conditions Verrazano and Palace Malice, had no excuses for the favorite. But he did mention a slow break as the excuse for Dogwood's Palace Malice under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
"Mike said Palace Malice missed the break," Pletcher said. "He slipped behind and dropped way back, not his characteristic spot. Mike thought he was much the best; the break killed him. It's horse racing. It happens every day, every race, 14 times a day sometimes. We would have liked to have won it, but we've had a great meet and we're not going to cry about it. We'll regroup and try again."
"He broke really, really, really bad," Smith said. "What am I going to do? I cannot go for the lead. All I could do is sit back there, creep up, creep up, creep up and see if I could get him there. I thought I still had it for a little bit there, but it was just too much to make up."
There were 47,597 in attendance for the 144th running of the Travers, slightly more than the 46,528 who witnessed the dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket last season. It was the largest Travers Day crowd since 2004, when 48,894 attended to watch Birdstone take it for Marylou Whitney and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito. On-track wagering on the card was $9,672,249, up 11% over last year.
The total handle climbed 13% compared to last year, with $41,363,760 wagered on 14 races.